On the benefits of anonymity

As our time in Kenya draws to a close I wonder what it would be like if I lived here. What if there was no end date, could I do it? And surprisingly when I think of the reasons why it would be hard to live here the usual suspects don’t really make the list. It’s not the lack of familiar (i.e. good food) that makes it hard or the concerns about exotic infectious diseases and sub-standard medical care.  It’s the lack of anonymity that I’m not sure I could stand month after month.

No matter where I go in Kenya I don’t blend in.  I stand out like a sore thumb. And Kenyans, like the Senegalese and Ugandans that I met in my travels, are not about to let me go by unnoticed. Here they call white people mzungus, in West Africa it was toubab. Children, adults, everyone uses it and it seems to be, as far as I can tell, not really meant to be offensive.  Coming from a country where any discussion of race or color is highly charged and draped with subtext – being in a place where people mostly associate me with my skin color is particularly strange.

Most of the time being “mzungu” is not problem per se.  Most people just use it as a way to describe us that is fast and easy. But what it represents, our differentness, can be troublesome.  Because in the end being mzungu in Kenya seems to mean a lack of anonymity, a constant gaze from those around you that can be a bit onerous. Children who see us yell out from matatu windows, bicycle seats and behind school fences “Mzungu*! How are you?” Drivers of bicycle taxis and tuk tuks assume we want a ride and slow down to talk to us. Prices for goods and services are increased 50%-100% for me.

Now it’s not that I don’t understand the place of privilege that I come from. As a white person in Kenya I  likely do have the money to pay the increased prices and I recognize the attention of children has more to do with fascination than mischief. But at the end of the day it starts to wear you down a little bit. It feels like an invisible barrier has been erected between you and the people who live here and you’ll never quite fit in.  Perhaps if I lived here it would fade day by day into the back ground of a busy life. But I doubt it.

* a Swahili word that means “aimless wanderer” but used now to denote any white person, sometimes any foreigner at all.

Published in: on May 25, 2011 at 6:10 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. As a pseudo representative of the Asian continent, I have been called Jackie Chan, China, and Jet Li. Perhaps this has warded off pickpockets? Thankfully, whenever someone wants to speak to me in English and I don’t want to reply, I can play the “I don’t speak English” card. Anyways, it’s pretty obvious that Asian people are even more of an anomaly out here, and are just plain puzzling to some people.

    Another angle we did not have the perspective to observe was the role of Indian people in Kisumu. We live in a neighborhood that is probably at least half Indian. As far as we have seen, they have entirely separate social functions, send their kids to Indian only schools, and are never seen integrating/socializing with Kenyans unless the Kenyan is working for them. It also seems that every large supermarket, expensive restaurant, and big business is owned by Indian people. I wonder what range of perceptions Kenyans have for Indian people here.. and whether the Indian people here feel fully integrated into the larger society around them.

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